The political activism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls into question not only the issue of civil disobedience, but the ramifications of religious and political ideologies and their relationship to the rule of law, specifically the United States Constitution. King’s rationalization for acts of civil disobedience is based on spiritual, as well as moral and political ideology; this fact necessitates that King’s activism be regarded as existing in opposition to the tenants of the Constitution, if not for its blatant endorsing of “just” law-breaking, for its overt breach of the Constitutional separation of church and state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ” (Constitution, 31) .
Obviously, King’s attempt to redress the moral failings which he believed were inherent in the American political system was based not only on a formal religious doctrine, but on spiritual faith.
The expression of non-violent activism by King relied as much on spiritual conviction as that of political ideology. This conviction brought about an adherence to a concept of breaking “unjust” laws as a method of civil disobedience. King found justification for the breaking of social laws by the invocation of Divine Power.
She asks her sister, Ismene, to help her bury Polynices. “You’ll soon show what you are, worth your breeding, Ismene? Or a coward- for all your royal blood. ” She quickly discovers she does not have full support from Ismene. We see that Ismene sides more with political law than morals, “Think what a death we’ll die, the worst of all if we violate the laws and override the fixed decree of the ...
The result was that King experienced some difficulty in making his racial and social activism truly universal, although such a desire to do so formed an underlying precept of his overall strategy for social and political change. In a rather unique twist of philosophy, King opted to not only resist unjust laws non-violently, but to reach out to his so-called opponents: white racists with language of reconciliation, good-will, and fellowship. King’s reliance on civil disobedience and the breaking of unjust laws by Divine justification requires a deeper examination.
Such an examination is possible due to King’s extensive writings; in particular his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” a famous document where he addresses the concern of his fellow clergymen regarding the breaking of laws by civil activists. The letter repeatedly appeals to a shared sense of religion; King also cites Biblical examples to bolster his argument.
Responding to the criticism that his actions and the actions of his followers, even though non-violent in practice, ultimately resulted in violence on the behalf of the white Southerners who beat and jailed the protestor (and sometimes lynched or otherwise killed African Americans), King compared the fight for civil rights with the fight of Jesus to spread the gospel.
If King’s justification for breaking “unjust” laws is based on religious faith, then his activism springs from a kind of conviction or set of convictions that cannot Constitutionally exist within the legislative capacities of American politics and society. King’s appeal, therefore is not limited to political redress but to social and cultural change which are protected by the Constitution. Of course, the keystone of King’s activism was the issue of Civil Rights and this issue demonstrates a direct constitutional connection: King’s aim is to strike down the inherent racism which can be found in the Constitution.